Three Chinese astronauts landed safely back on earth after a 68-hour voyage and space walk that showcased the country's technological mastery and were hailed as a major victory by its leaders. Their Shenzhou ("sacred vessel") spacecraft parachuted down to the steppes of northern Inner Mongolia region at dusk. Doctors rushed to open the capsule and check the men as they readjusted to gravity and recovered from the punishing re-entry. Spacewalker Zhai Zhigang was the first to emerge and was helped to a nearby folding chair, where he was greeted with flowers and applause and said he was "proud of his motherland." Premier Wen Jiabao told the nation minutes later that the three were heroes for their efforts, which put China in an elite club of three nations that have managed a space walk. "The complete success of the manned Shenzhou VII is a great stride forward for China's space technology," he said, adding that the country's efforts were focused only on science. "Chinese people have ceaselessly sought the peaceful development and use of space technology," he said. China's rapidly advancing program has raised disquiet among Western governments and in Japan that it may have military ambitions in space, especially after conducting an anti-satellite missile test last year. Zhai's brief but historic outing in a Chinese-designed space suit that cost $4.4 million capped a year in which the country has both coped with the tragedy of the devastating Sichuan earthquake and reveled in the Beijing Olympics. The ability to conduct a space walk is key to a longer-term goal of assembling a space lab and then a larger space station, and maybe one day making a landing on the moon.